Aged to Perfection: Gene & Georgetti’s Tony Durpetti Sticks With Tradition

[While most steak houses these days seem to pay a lot of attention to image, for Tony Durpetti it’s always been about family. “I’ve definitely come full circle in my life,” he says, holding court from behind the bar at Gene & Georgetti. “Just take a look at that mural.” Durpetti has owned the city’s oldest steak house, tucked beneath the Brown Line at Illinois and Franklin, for about ten years. But his relationship with the place–as depicted by the mural in question, which covers an entire wall in an upstairs dining room–dates back to childhood.

Growing up at 310 W. Illinois, just two doors west of the restaurant, Durpetti used to walk over and offer to open the front door for customers. This display of entrepreneurial spirit didn’t sit well with old Gene Michelotti. He and his partner, Alfredo Federighi (nicknamed “Georgetti” for his resemblance to an Italian cyclist), had purchased the corner building in 1941 and opened their namesake with very little restaurant experience. The last thing they needed was a kid hungry for tips standing out front. “He would tell me to get lost,” recalls Durpetti.

In 1967, an adult Tony moved in with his brother, who happened to live directly across the street from Gene Michelotti and his wife, Ida, in Elmwood Park. “I met Marion [Gene’s daughter], and we started dating. One night when I went to pick her up, Gene says to me, ‘You’re the guy who used to hang out in front of my restaurant, aren’t you?’ I couldn’t believe it.” Tony and Marion married in 1969.

Durpetti was an advertising executive then, representing more than 500 radio stations all over the country. In 1989 Gene fell ill; he passed away later that year, at the age of 73. Durpetti and his wife bought the family business from Ida Michelotti in 1991, and Durpetti ran it simultaneously with the ad business for four years. Eventually, he says, “I got sick of all the traveling, and I started to like the camaraderie around here.” So in 1995 he gave up advertising and began to focus full-time on the steak house.

Very little has changed at Gene & Georgetti since the early 1940s. Still regulation are the long aprons that set the standard for today’s steak-house waiters; the wood-paneled walls are untouched. “Many of the employees had been here for more than 20 years,” says Durpetti. “I never would have been able to do this without a crew like the one we have,” he says with deference.

Most important, all the meat is still prime, the top USDA grade of meat, notable for its even marbling and creamy layer of fat. (Other grades, in descending order, are choice, Angus, and select.) Durpetti says only 2 percent of the beef slaughtered in the U.S. is graded prime, and 90 percent of that goes to restaurants; few of the city’s top steak houses offer anything less. “It’s corn fed, and it’s just so superior to anything else,” he says.

Down a flight of metal stairs is the cutting room, which was expanded in 1997 during a major addition to the restaurant. (Durpetti also enlarged the kitchen and added 110 seats.) Two young butchers are slicing through a 15-pound slab of New York strip, cutting and trimming until they have several 21-ounce steaks, which the restaurant will sell for $35.75 apiece. The same cut is $33.50 with the bone attached. “You get more flavor with the bone in,” says executive chef Mario Navarro, a 26-year veteran of the Gene & Georgetti kitchen.

Aging is another source of pride for most steak houses around the city. In the old days, before Cryovacs and temperature-controlled coolers, butchers hung slabs of meat so they could develop a natural “crust” or mold on the outside; after several weeks, the meat would shrink and the flavors would concentrate, producing a tender steak. But too much shrinkage meant rising costs for the restaurants, and meanwhile the American public started growing concerned about unwanted bacteria. So these days most steak houses use “wet” aging, which means the steaks are aged in their own juices inside tightly sealed Cryovac packaging. The restaurant’s longtime supplier, Allen Brothers, ships about 7,200 pounds of meat a week to Gene & Georgetti. The vacuum-sealed packages have already been aged at least 16 days on arrival; Durpetti stores the boxes in a 42-degree cooler for another 12 days or so–three to four weeks’ aging is ideal–until one of the butchers cracks them open and cuts the steaks to specifications just a few hours before they’re served.

Steaks cook inside one of the kitchen’s three Vulcan gas broilers, which have been modified to heat up to 1,100 degrees instead of the factory-installed maximum of 800 degrees. No salt or pepper touches the meat. “The marbling takes care of the flavor,” says Navarro, with absolute confidence. At full capacity, the broilers can handle up to 50 steaks at a time. After ten minutes, a 21-ounce strip is cooked to a perfect medium rare; the exterior is charred black, smelling of earth and coal. The interior is a warm, deep red, and the meat is only slightly chewy, more tender at the center of the steak. Durpetti hands me a sharpened butter knife. “You know what we say here?” he asks, smiling. “If you can’t cut it with that, it’s free.”

Side dishes are another barometer of a steak house’s quality, and here the choices are plentiful: creamed spinach, broiled mushrooms, and fried onion rings, as well as five kinds of potatoes–lyonnaise, Vesuvio, mashed, baked, or cottage fried. Potatoes come gratis with any meal, as does a lettuce and tomato salad. Durpetti points out that only about half the orders on a given night are for steak; the bulk of the menu leans toward traditional Italian favorites like veal, pasta, and chicken. During conventions, however, steak is king.

Durpetti is planning a special celebration in late May, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the restaurant. “We’ll close down on a Sunday and invite all the regulars in,” he says. He wants to reward longtime customers and employees, and remember Gene and Georgetti. “Like I always say, you gotta surround yourself with good people.”

Gene & Georgetti is at 500 N. Franklin, 312-527-3718.

–Steve Dolinsky

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.